Hotel Genius

What would Orwell do?

By Brian Kernighan


Published: Monday, November 24th, 2008 on The Daily Princetonian.

George Orwell delivered the final manuscript of “Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel” almost exactly 60 years ago. The book has had a strong influence on language through words like newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother and of course the adjective “Orwellian,” but fortunately Orwell’s dystopia didn’t materialize in the real year 1984.

One of the technological ideas in “1984” was pervasive surveillance and monitoring through the “telescreen,” a two-way communication device that was very difficult to hide from. In Orwell’s novel, surveillance was a government activity. That’s still true today, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, with ubiquitous cameras and greatly increased monitoring of communications like e-mail, sometimes within the law and sometimes arguably well outside. Orwell could have written a fine new edition exploring how governments might use today’s technology.

I’ve been struck, however, by a different kind of surveillance that was not part of Orwell’s worldview at all, at least as I remember the book. (I had planned to re-read “1984,” but the three or four shelves of Orwelliana in the depths of Firestone hold but a single copy, in Polish.)

The surveillance I have in mind is not governmental but commercial. The march of technology has given us ever smaller and cheaper gadgets, especially computers and cell phones, and pervasive communication systems, notably the internet and wireless. As an almost accidental byproduct of this progress, we have voluntarily given up an amazing amount of our personal privacy, to a degree that Orwell might well have found incredible.

In my class I sometimes ask whether people would willingly carry a device that can track their every movement and report exactly where they are at every moment. Of course no one would ever do that, but in fact everyone does, since every student carries a cell phone that is never turned off. Older phones only know to within a few hundred meters where you are, but newer phones with GPS have you pinpointed within a few meters.

So phone companies know where your phone is. Would they reveal that information? As I write this, we have just learned that Verizon employees have been checking out President-elect Barack Obama’s cell phone records. Clearly this was unauthorized, but it’s not hard to imagine ways in which your physical location could be used commercially, for example to send location-dependent advertising to your phone. Would you be willing to let the phone company use your location in return for lower rates or a sexier phone? Experience suggests that most people would be quite happy with such a trade - privacy is good but it is often given away or sold off quite cheaply.

On the internet, students are astonishingly willing to broadcast the most intimate details of their lives on and, though this pendulum may be swinging back as it becomes clear that more than just your friends are watching: Prospective employers check out candidates, as do college admissions offices.

Facebook and similar sites have an enormous amount of data about relationships among people, though their attempts to make a profit from it have met with mixed results. There was real pushback a year ago when Facebook exposed purchases made by members on third-party sites; this was deemed going too far. On the other hand, when Facebook added a “news” mechanism a couple of years back, a surprising number of people didn’t mind having their changes of relationships and other facts broadcast far and wide without explicit consent - privacy given away again.

Most websites use cookies to track repeat visitors; companies like DoubleClick, recently acquired by Google, sell this information to advertisers. We were talking in class last week about how cookies work. I was faced with the usual wall of open laptops (in some ways a sore subject, to which we may return some day), but for once they provided a teachable moment. I asked everyone to pause in their chatting, surfing, twittering, mailing and similarly crucial activities and count the cookies on their computers. “How many do you see?”,I asked. The first answer, quite representative, was a shocked “I can’t count them!” That led to a discussion of whether the benign uses of cookies outweigh their privacy-invading role of monitoring what sites you visit. Most people seemed a bit taken aback at all of this, and I’ll bet that a fair number of cookies were subsequently deleted. This is one place where you can recapture some privacy at no cost - if you stop accepting cookies from third parties (the advertising companies), the web keeps right on working.

Scott McNealy, at the time CEO of Sun Microsystems, once said “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Sadly, it’s pretty close to true these days. The remarkable thing is that we seem to have given it away, and continue to do so, for pretty much nothing at all in return. Orwell could have written a book about it.

Brian Kernighan GS ‘69 is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at